Taking Sex Differences Seriously – Chapter 9

April 17, 2013 | NeW

In Chapter 9, Rhoads sifts through the idea that effective childcare can be provided equally by anyone – mother, father, nanny, or daycares. Structuring his argument around common objections, Rhoads first addresses the claim that children in daycare get sick more often, agreeing that

Daycare providers pressure mothers to use antibiotics, and mothers, stressed by the prospect of more lost work days, pressure doctors to prescribe them. Overuse of antibiotics incubates deadly new germ strains. (224)

However, there is also evidence that

All those germs and all that sickness may strengthen the immune system (225)

This immunity is spotty; hay fever and asthma rates are lower, but ear infections abound and cold incidents are first doubled, (before age two) then decrease to occur less than one-third as often (after age six.) After age eleven, prior immunity doesn’t appear to have any effect.

Beyond the physical risks, Rhoads’ greater concern is the mixed emotional and cognitive development of children across different childcare options. He compares a number of variables (Is a happy grandparent better than a grumpy mother? Is a quality daycare better than a distracted father? Is a nanny better than daycare?) Noting that research is mixed due to countless variables, Rhoads still concludes that overall, ideal development occurs when young children are nurtured primarily by their mothers.

To date, results of this ongoing study have found risks to children in center-based care, and to some extent in all forms of non-maternal care. (226) The effect of early and extensive non-maternal care… included fighting, cruelty, and explosive behavior. (227) [Childcare centers] produced children who at age three had poorer cognitive and verbal development than children of stay-at-home mothers. (227)

But, why doesn’t high-quality daycare work well? Say, if we use those with lower adult-child ratios, or who employ sincere, loving teachers? Rhoads cites several reasons, with accompanying studies.

… staff turnover is very tough on their charges (230)

Even government daycare subsidies are

… still not large enough to produce quality day care that parents can afford (230)

Nannies, even excellent ones, often try

not to get too deeply involved with the children in their care because the family might move or fire them (232)

Possibly above all, Rhoads claims that

Mothers have a more-than-rational love for their children and enjoy types of caregiving that no one else will. (231)

Many women try to merge both, finding the best childcare possible while still pursuing their career. But, Rhoads says that this is tremendously taxing for the mother.

Even women who try to combine working with breastfeeding, by putting their child in an on-site daycare, will likely feel “stressed and pressured to get back” [to work] (232) Also, mothers with time-intensive jobs may come home stressed and depleted, with less patience and energy to engage their children skillfully and warmly. (227)

Furthermore, women frequently feel deep guilt about leaving their child; Rhoads calls it the

… byproduct of an irreconcilable dilemma. (233)

Although it’s not popular to say so, Rhoads’ research implies that this guilt is a widespread feeling, even among those women who truly wanted to pursue careers;

… working moms’ “pervasive internal struggle” is as common among those with teenagers as those with preschoolers; even mothers with “supportive husbands” are “often” highly conflicted. (235) … professional women regularly express amazement at the intensity of their maternal feelings. (238)

On the other hand,

Fathers don’t feel this daily guilt (235)

And even when fathers do care for the children more, so that their wife can work,

… research to date does not provide support for the view that good relations with dad in early childhood can substitute for good relations with mom (236)

If this is true, it appears that all children simply need a sizeable chunk of mom’s mental, emotional, and physical attention. As a young stay-at-home mom myself, I’ve been asked frankly: Exactly how are you changing the world by staying home with your child? Rhoads answers this question more compellingly than I’ve been able to – concluding simply that children whose primary caregivers were their mothers are more mentally stable, emotionally healthy, and capable of achieving their full potential in life. This chapter is a comfort to those of us who are pausing career goals to raise a family. But, what about those women who (as affirmed in Chapter 2) aren’t as interested in mothering, who want uninterrupted careers? Must their children necessarily end up sub-par? Seems a harsh conclusion. Fortunately for him, Rhoads isn’t writing to solve societal dilemmas; he’s simply trying to counter the pervasive claims that men and women have the same skills and effect within society. And perhaps if we listened to his perspective, some of this dilemma would dissipate. The mothering types could stay home, guilt-free, and the non-mothering types might not feel so much pressure to have kids, if they didn’t want to. Feminism asserts that being a mother is confining, and that having a career is freeing. But, maybe increased acceptance of our differences would actually be more freeing, and help us find our individual callings as women. One can hope. Modern, honest science does seem to be confirming a lot more gender variance than our textbooks ever implied.

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